Business Research in Canada

I was reading an article today in the Metro (a free daily in Toronto) that made the following statement:

Canadian businesses aren’t doing enough research and development, and that’s putting the country at a distinct global disadvantage…. despite substantial federal tax breaks and funding.

This article, while fairly short, was of particular interest to me, as this is what my business does. Optimal Upgrade Consulting is all about R&D for small and medium-sized businesses with a focus on technology. Other businesses exist with a focus on other issues.

My belief is that the problem with the lack of Research and Development in Canada is not the lack of companies doing R&D. While the industry itself is not large, it does exist. The problem is that clients are not abundant. While every small business looking to grow will eventually require the use of technology, that does not mean that every business will perform the research into that technology. Nor will they pay for professional advising, but will use their own understanding of the technology (or lack thereof) to make a decision.

Businesses which specialize in doing research, whether into technology, printing, advertising, or any customizable work, can contribute to the solution. Their marketing needs to target the small and medium-sized businesses, explaining why their expertise is needed. They need to educate their potential clients on the benefits of getting custom advise. Rather than focus on landing the few big contracts that are available, they should devote a significant percentage of their efforts to teaching small business owners about the benefits of professional advise.

Landing a small contract today to advise a small business on a common problem may not pay the bills. But if that client sees the benefit of your advise, they will return with a larger contract once the business has grown, and that is what will increase the volume of R&D business in Canada.

Networking Meeting Topics

I am trying to come up with a topic, and from there, an expert, for an upcoming networking meeting. I have a fair amount of time before the event (over 3 weeks to go), and am looking for ideas.

If you were to attend a networking event who’s goal is to help people find jobs, what would you like to hear spoken about?

Developing a Personal Brand

I have had a few discussions recently regarding the definition of a personal brand, and how you might go about developing one. This topic is of particular interest to small business owners, as having a recognized personal brand is usually associated with increased sales.

A personal brand is a fairly vague term, since it can consist of a variety of components. It can be a photograph or image. It can be a phrase or expression. It can be an idea or concept. In most cases, a personal brand is built from multiple such items, some deliberate, others incidental. Some can be generated quickly, while others will take a long time.

As a person, your personal brand includes your image (see my article What is Your Image Worth for more information) as well as ideas – honest, creative, resourceful. As a company, you may have a slogan, or perhaps a distinctive image. For example, the swish is an easily identified image that makes you think Nike. “You’re fired” is an expression that makes you think of Donald Trump. These are personal brands.

As a small business owner, your personal brand is important. It lets potential customers and clients think of you more easily than the thought of your competitor. It evokes feelings of trust, and that can lead to more business. When putting together a personal brand, run it (whether image, saying, or idea) by a sample group to get feedback on what thoughts your image evokes. Once you’ve established a personal brand, it becomes much harder to change it than if you don’t yet have one.

The Customer is Always Right… Sometimes

There is an old saying “The customer is always right” which is questioned on occasion. In the world of service providers, the vendor usually knows significantly more than the client about what the service can and can’t do. The client has approached you, as the provider, for precisely that expertise. Yet, countless times, the client will disagree with your recommendations and insist on their own path. As a vendor, what do you do?

There are, of course, several issues to be aware of.

  1. Making the client happy – if you want this client to refer you to others, they need to feel that the service you provided was more than satisfactory
  2. Your reputation – the solution you ultimately provide will reflect on your professional image
  3. Solving the client’s true need – in conjunction with the first point, if you don’t resolve the true need, the client may eventually discover this (even though you did point this out several times during your negotiations) and this will reflect on your reputation

There are three stages of working with a client, and the truth of the saying depends on which stage you are holding at:

  1. Before the contract is signed, when you are still working out the details of what needs to be done
  2. While you are doing the work
  3. After the work has been concluded

At the first stage, the customer is not necessarily correct. This is your opportunity to inform the client about what you feel the best solution is. While tact is required, you can disagree with the client openly. The client has approached you for your expertise, and that includes your opinions. The objective at this stage is to come to a common understanding of the need and the solution.

At the second stage, the customer is always right, as long as they are within the bounds of the contract. You have reached your common agreement already, and now your objective is to have a satisfied customer. Fundamental changes to what you have already agreed on will put you back into the first stage. Other changes, while you are entitled to an opinion, and should inform the client, will ultimately go the way of the client. Otherwise, you risk creating the impression that you are stubborn and difficult to deal with (which may or may not be the truth).

At the third stage, you are no longer doing work for the client. You are, however, trying to maintain a relationship with the client in order to generate leads to more business. At this stage, there is not much the client can ask for that was not covered during the first two stages. However, if the client does ask for something, you need to weigh the potential benefit of having an extremely satisfied client who may refer more business to you against the real cost of doing the work now. I’m not recommending that you give your work away for nothing, but it may be worthwhile to use your discretion to determine how to go about dealing with this request.

In summary, when the client asks you to do something, they are not necessarily correct, and you should feel free to discuss, respectfully, the issues involved in the request. However, once you have accepted to do some work, your power to disagree has diminished. If you don’t feel that the client is asking for something reasonable, perhaps you should not accept them as a client.

Benefits of a Mentor

As a small business owner, or one who works from home, you should consider, if you have not done so already, acquiring a mentor. A mentor can provide you with years of experience. Whether it’s advice on getting some contracts drafted by a lawyer, or how to analyze the benefits of different advertising packages, a mentor has been through these same decisions in the past. In addition to the advice that you will get, you acquire an additional form of motivation, as your mentor will encourage you to succeed in your business.

Of course, you will need to find a mentor, and understand how to evaluate the benefits and risk you will gain as a result of pairing up with a mentor.

A mentor for a business is typically a leader, or former leader, of another business. They have succeeded in the past, and are willing to contribute their time and knowledge to help others succeed as well. This gives you the first item to check out – what has your potential mentor done in the past?

You want to find a mentor who understands your business to some degree. While any successful CEO might be able to provide good business advice, you should try to find someone who succeeded in an industry similar to your own. If you are in manufacturing, some of your issues will be unique to that industry. The owner of a service-providing company will not be able to provide you with sufficient advice regarding those issues.

In my case, I provide a service in the technology sector. If I were trying to find a mentor, I would want someone who:

  • Worked in technology
  • Worked with services
  • Worked with consultants
  • Worked with small businesses
  • Started a business from nothing

The ideal mentor may not be the most well-known person, but he or she would be able to provide advice in all the categories listed above. After all, the issues I will be facing will fit into one or more of those categories, so the best advice I can get will be from someone who has experience in those categories.

In looking for a mentor, look to government programs, or your local Chamber of Commerce. Many provide the service of linking small business owners and entrepreneurs with mentors. As well, if you use Linked In, you may be able to locate a mentor by asking for one (use their Questions and Answers feature).

If you have other ideas or recommendations regarding mentorship for small businesses, please comment! I look forward to reading your ideas!

New Edition of Site Published

I published a new version of my website for Optimal Upgrade Consulting which can be found here. Comments and suggestions are always welcome.

What is Your Image Worth

In brief, everything and nothing.

There are two components to your image. There is the physical component, which consists of how you dress and act, what people can see. The other component is what people think of when they think about you. Both are important, both affect one another, and the value in each depends on you.

If you are trying to attract business, you want people to think of you as competent, reliable, and easy to work with. The exact nature of your business will define other aspects of your image – if you work with art, then you may want to be perceived as creative, for example. How you dress and act when you are around others can and does affect this image. For examples of how your dress affects your image, watch the show What Not To Wear.

Other issues that will affect your image include your language – do you use a lot of slang when you speak, or do you prefer a highly-refined vocabulary? Do you speak politely at all times? Do you pause to think during conversations, or do you think as you go along? All of these aspects to your language affect people’s perceived image of you.

As a business, you may have printed materials or a website. Is it well laid out? Does it show quality? Is your material informative? (As an aside, I have seen a significant number of brochures and websites which looked fantastic, until I read them, and realized that they didn’t say ANYTHING.)

Your image is worth what you put into it, but at the same time, a bad image is worth less than no image. If you are not concerned with your image, it will show, and that can generate a negative image. At a minimum, you should ensure that the image you are portraying is correct. If you aren’t sure, find a brutally honest friend and ask. You need to know the answer.

Decision Making Process

In any company or business, there is a process for making decisions. It may not be a formal or rigid process, or perhaps not a very complex process, but it exists. For example, a decision to switch brands of coffee might be made by Joe, who is the one who stocks the kitchen. A decision to spend $25,000 on Search Engine Optimization might require that the entire company (all 7 workers) sit down and discuss. Regardless, the process is there.

The question small business owners need to ask is whether their decision making process works. The answer is rarely a simple yes or no. The following is intended to show the impact of a good or bad decision making process, and why it is in your best interest to develop a good process.

There are several issues to be aware of when looking at any decision:

  • The impact to your business image and its ability to function. A $25 expenditure for coffee will be unlikely to change how your business is perceived, while a $25,000 investment in SEO can change your image and will affect your cash flow.
  • The trust you place in your workers. If your workers have a vested interest in your business, which most workers do to at least some extent, they will likely want to be able to provide input to some of the decisions that are made.
  • The amount of executive power any one person has should be limited to prevent bad or heavily biased decisions. This can be done by requiring a review of all decisions, with the size of the review dependent on the scope of the decision.
  • The amount of time spent following the process relative to the significance of the decision. Spending 2 weeks deciding which brand of coffee to buy is a waste of time, spending 20 minutes deciding which SEO package to sign up for is not nearly enough time.
  • Your time spent making non-business-critical decisions relative to the time you spend working on your business at all should be minimal. If you want your business to grow, you need to learn to delegate and provide opportunity for others in your business to gain your trust.

In a good decision making process, you should aim to balance the four issues above. Keep the process minimal relative to the size of the decision, and avoid getting involved in the small decisions (but do keep aware of what the decisions are). By monitoring the small decisions your employees make, you provide the opportunity for them to gain your trust and open opportunity for you to delegate more of the non-business-critical decisions, which allows you to focus on growing your business.